Alexander Jablokov

 

I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction, with a new novel, Brain Thief.

The name is pronounced Yablokov, and the legal name is Jablokow.  My best friends can't spell or pronounce it, so you shouldn't worry about it either.

More here

Write me at alexjablokow [at] comcast.net

I'd love to hear from you.

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Appearances

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"How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry", Asimov's Science Fiction July/August 2017(out now)

"The Forgotten Taste of Honey", Asimov's Science Fiction, October/November 2016

"The Return of Black Murray", Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2016

"The Instructive Tale of the Archeologist and His Wife", Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014

"Bad Day on Boscobel", The Other Half of the Sky.

"Feral Moon", novella, Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2013

"Since You Seem to Need a Certain Amount of Guidance", Daily Science Fiction, November 6, 2012

"The Comfort of Strangers", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2012

"Blind Cat Dance" reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Best Science Fiction of the Year 28

"The Day the Wires Came Down", novelette, Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2011

"Plinth Without Figure", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010

"Warning Label", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine August 2010

"Blind Cat Dance", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine March 2010

Brain Thief, a novel, Tor Books, January 2010

 

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Reboot blog

 

Tuesday
Jan032017

'Twas ever thus

Sometimes the world seems totally different, when it is actually completely the same.

I was reading Sean Davis Cashman's America in the Gilded Age (research for a possible book), when I came across an account of a conflict the urban reformer and founder of Chicago's Hull House, Jane Addams, had with a corrupt local boss, Johnny "DePow" Powers.  She wanted to clean the streets of trash, and so launched two campaigns, in 1896 and 1898, to unseat him. She failed both times. As Cashman puts it:

She discovered she could not compete with his reputation for generosity. He boasted that 2,600 ward residents owed their city jobs to him. He distributed railroad passes, Christmas dinners, and free coal. Ordinary people could appreciate such minuscule largess without realizing that they usually paid for it in the extortionate street railway fares Powers secured for his allies, the railway companies. Ironically, they prefered his top hat and opulent life-style to the cloth caps and austere behavior of Addams's candidates.

That "irony", if such it is, will always be with us. The popular politician who lives large and crushes more virtuous opponents is a staple of democratic politics, from Alcibiades's day to this.

Tuesday
Dec272016

Our political Morton Thiokol O-ring

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger took off from Kennedy Space Center, in unusually cold temperatures. Morton Thiokol had built the boosters out of four segments each. Field joints containing rubber O-rings seals connected the segments. That morning, the cold rubber of the joints, operating in temperatures far lower than ever tested, became stiff.

A jet of exhaust came through one of the cold-stiff seals and played on an external tank containing oxygen and hydrogen, until the tank exploded. At 73 seconds after liftoff, Challenger came apart. I'd like to say "killing all aboard", but it seems that the crew survived, as the crew compartment continued to climb before free falling into the ocean, finally killing everyone aboard.

This was the result of "normal deviance": things seemed fine on every other day, so poor practices continued, shrinking safety margins. Because safety margins are a pain in the ass.

Increasing bank capital requirements can lower the risk of catastrophic 2008-type failures and bailouts, as Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Fed has proposed, but at the cost of higher interest rates and lower growth (the most recent episode of the Planet Money podcast has that story). Repairing infrastructure before it actually falls down costs money taxpayers always bitch about. Computer security slows things down, and makes interactions more difficult. Security precautions are always annoying, and no one can tell which ones are effective. Earthquake-proofing buildings in tectonically active areas is expensive, time-consuming, and can affect how buildings look.

If nothing bad happens for awhile (and that "awhile" doesn't have to be very long) people start cutting corners. They get irritated at inspectors, security drills, perfectly good money spent for no visibly good reason. They get to think that you should only worry about problems that happen visibly and regularly. Even trained engineers and technicians, like those that day at KSC can fall prey to it. It's not obvious. And, until something goes really wrong, the problem is invisible, because failure is sudden and dramatic, rather than slow and visible.

Our economic and political system seems robust, flexible, and responsive. And I'm sure it is. Still, both democracy and capitalism are essentially unnatural. Both insist on valuing strangers as much as personal contacts, tell you that costs in the short term lead to benefits in the long term, and are complex and opaque. Maintenance and upgrades have to be continuous, and that work can be quite tiresome and unrewarding.

We have elected a Morton Thiokol O-ring as President.  Assume nothing, and keep your eye on the thermometer.

 

 

Monday
Dec262016

A few podcasts I like

One of the most influential cultural figures in my (part of) my world is Mike Duncan. Duncan pioneered a deeply researched, perceptive, snarky style for presenting longform history podcasts in the History of Rome, and then in Revolutions.

The first history podcaster with a high profile was probably Lars Brownsworth with his Twelve Byzantine Rulers, many years ago, but I think it took Duncan to really show how a regular person, working hard, could do it.

Robin Pierson, with his imposing The History of Byzantium is the most obvious successor, since he took up where Duncan left off, with the intention of going all the way to 1453.

But lately I've really liked The History of the Twentieth Century by Mark Painter, who, from his biography, also writes science fiction. No wonder it's good. He picks interesting music of the period (he had a particularly funny run of playing "A Hot Time On The Old Town", which seems to have been the sound track to America's introduction to overseas military intervention. He really seems able to pull out the interesting and significant points from any incident, character, or situation. I'm a big fan.

Many podcasts are self-indulgent, unedited, and focused on whatever happened in the last five minutes. I like a couple of those (like the Slate Political Gabfest and Slate Money). But, by and large, it takes a lot of work and editing to get a podcast worth listening to.

I'd love to do a podcast myself, but have trouble getting done what I need to already. I have a concept, topics, and everything. Someday, maybe....

Wednesday
Dec212016

The saving remnant

Before the election I worried that Clinton's victory would enable the Left to continue to ignore the consequences of its intellectual bankruptcy, failure to engage with the real problems facing our civilization, and insular self-satisfaction.

Well, Clinton didn't win, but that didn't make any difference to my prediction. The Left really does seem intent on ignoring these things, focusing, instead, on our new President's (many and real) personal failings, a total nonstarter as either a political move or a coherent philosophical position.

I continue to find the fate of Washington's Initiative 732, where social justice activists helped defeat a sensible-seeming carbon tax proposal because it didn't provide enough direct payoffs to their constituencies, instructive. Sometimes, the real question we ask about a big problem should be "how can we solve it?" and not "how can we use it to bludgeon our cultural enemies?" Self-righteousness always seems to triumph over incremental problem solving.

I'm worried that, seemingly envying Putin's Russia its vibrant cultural life, booming economy, and inclusive politics, the Trump administration will settle us with a crony capitalist system that looks superficially like the wealth-and-freedom-creating system we are used to, but is actually something quite different.

Instead I see essays on cultural appropriation, an issue that shows how far past its sell-by date American progressivism has gotten. But I certainly can't do any better on that topic than Fredrik deBoer's no one has the slightest idea what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, and deBoer is far leftier than I.

Fortunately, I am reading a lot of really sensible people, from the usual Marginal Revolution to a couple of recent discoveries that seem to be in my weird little political segment, Bleeding Heart Libertarians and The Niskanen Center.

Real thought is out there. We need to cling together, while keeping in mind how easily the sensible middle gets ground between the upper and nether millstones of two ferociously competitive teams. Being sensible has not usually been a particularly successful political movement.

 

Friday
Dec162016

My anti-akrasia tools III: credible commitment to long-term goals

Worthwhile long-term goals, whether losing weight, learning a foreign language, or becoming the kind of person who writes blog posts consistently, are the product of small, incremental, consistent decisions. If you're the kind of person who can intuitively translate a distant large goal into a sequence of immediate, small actions, I am jealous of you.

For the rest of us, there is Beeminder.

I used to scoff at Beeminder when I would see it promoted in the right sidebar of Slate Star Codex: set up a fine to keep myself motivated? How does that make sense?

Compulsion makes me kick against the traces--even if is a compulsion I decided on.

But, as it turns out, the fine is by far the least important feature of Beeminder, at least to me, so I've learned not to lead with it when describing it to others--my friends have much the same response to it that I did.

Beeminder lets you think through a goal, break it down into small, doable segments, and then let you track those segments, and how well you are doing on your path to that long-term goal. It shows you the path graphically through time, warns you when your rate is low, and then, if you fall below the goal path, called "derailing", fines you (and the fine doubles with every subsequent derailing, up to a maximum you can set).

But to me, it is more a game, kind of  like a really slow game of Tetris. You know the piece is falling. But the game is only a small part of your life, and it's easy to neglect while you are focused on other things. Beeminder turns long-term goals into a game that you can play and track.

I started beause my friend Jeff Carver always tells me to turn my books into e-books, as he has done so successfully with his own. I had all my old books scanned, but there were lots of errors, which required proofreading, which....I didn't do. In any given week, there was just too many other things to do. Even though the goal was important, I didn't do it.

So that was the first goal I Beeminded. I assigned myself a number of times a week I would do a 25-minute session of proofreading (can you tell I use the Pomodoro Technique? I'll cover how that works for me in another post). Worked like a charm. I can look at my phone, see how many days I have before I drop below the line, and find time to do a session. I've done one book and am into the next.

Since that, I've added a lot of goals, some near-term, some bigger. I want to play the piano more, read and keep up my Russian more, improve my marketing analytics abilities, so all of those have tasks per week. It also makes sure I call my mother frequently (I'm a bad son, but a better one with Beeminder), and a few more private goals as well. A lot of people use it for losing weight, but I don't.

And, yes, my blog writing Beeminder indicates that I only have one day until I derail, why do you ask?

It's free for two goals, as long as you never go below the line. But I wanted more, so I paid them a yearly amount.

Beeminder essentially makes me more like the automatically productive person I mentioned in the first paragraph, and less the neurotic procrastinator I actually am. I wish it had been around earlier in my personal history.

Do you have some goal that you never seem to find the time to move toward? Give Beeminder a try. You might be surprised at how much progress you can make, after years of stasis and avoidance.

Earlier anti-akrasia posts

I: minimizing distraction

II: to-do lists and next actions